Batteries better, but are they still guilty as charged?

"You can never be too rich, too thin or have enough battery life," says one analyst. That in mind, firms work to up run times.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
During the holiday season, many wish for greater understanding between people and nations. Others just want better batteries.

Although electronics manufacturers have made substantial strides in getting their devices to eke more life out of a battery charge, one of the chief complaints among consumers remains the perceived short run time of audio players, notebooks and other devices.

"You can never be too rich, too thin or have enough battery life," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Techworld. "While everyone is focused on improving battery life, we still have a long way to go."

In many ways, it's a Sisyphean task. On the one hand, technologies deployed over the past few years--deep sleep states, screens made of organic light-emitting diodes, chips that can regulate their speeds and energy-efficient software--have dramatically reduced power consumption and thereby extended battery life on a variety of devices.

Batteries in notebooks, which five years ago typically lasted only two hours, now can run up to five or more hours.

The Logitech MX 1000 cordless mouse, meanwhile, can run 21 days on a full charge, thanks to a wide variety of tweaks to virtually all of the internal components that use electricity, the company says.

"We are about three times longer than when we started the cordless-mouse category," said Ashish Arora, director of product marketing at Logitech. "It is a major component of the cordless experience."

What's more, the Swiss-U.S. company incorporated features that seek to eliminate some of the frustrations common with battery-powered devices. Ten minutes in the charger gives the mouse enough energy to run a full day, while a full charge only takes about 3 hours. Surveys taken by the company also show that customers will pay a $10 premium in some cases for better battery life.

"Almost across the board, every device you can buy this year is more efficient than last year's by 10 to 20 percent," said Richard Doherty, an analyst at The Envisioneering Group. Apple Computer's latest iPod, for example, which has a color screen, can run longer than earlier black-and-white versions, he said.

On the other hand, devices are getting more complex and requiring more power. Wireless connectivity and 15-inch screens, baroque excesses less than four years ago, are now standard notebook features. Customers also expect companies to live up to their claims.

"Bottom line is, I really like my iPod Mini, but drawbacks on the iPod Mini for me are first, memory limitations, and second, battery life," said Allen Latta, director of business development at VenCap International. "On the battery, I'm getting about six hours on a charge, not the full eight."

The effort to reduce energy consumption, which started in earnest in the late '90s with notebooks, has become pervasive throughout the industry and touches nearly all the components that go into electronic devices.

"Battery life is really a function of power consumption," said Mike Trainor, chief mobile-technology evangelist at Intel.

In 2003, for instance, Intel came out with the Pentium M, a notebook chip containing transistors that would power down during lag times to save energy. The company has also created dedicated teams of engineers to work with battery suppliers, the hard-drive industry and other segments to develop energy-efficient parts.

A few years ago, Intel invested in and began to promote the technology of a Taiwanese company called Toppoly Optoelectronics as well. In traditional notebook screens, only about 4 percent to 8 percent of the light from the light source actually ever reaches the viewer. The rest gets dissipated as it travels through several filters and polarization layers.

Toppoly created a way to open the apertures on the pixels, allowing more light to come through. Conversely, this reduces the energy required to run the screen. A notebook screen on a thin and light model containing Toppoly's technology might now consume 3 watts of power. In 2002, a screen of the same size might have required 4 to 5 watts, Trainor said.

Consumers have noticed the gain, he said. In 2000, battery life was the No. 1 complaint, and good battery life was not among the top five factors consumers considered when buying a notebook. By 2003, battery life became one of the top two criteria.

Battery manufacturers have improved their technology as well. In 1990, a lithium-ion battery might have provided 1,200 milliamp hours of energy. A battery of the same size now might provide 2,600 milliamp hours, said Hameed Chaudhury, product marketing manager for the energy component group at Sony, adding that Sony introduced the first lithium-ion batteries in 1990.

"You can change the molecular structure to pack in more active materials," he said. "Think of an hourglass. If you have finer grains of sand, you can put more in." Sony has also reduced the size of metallic components to increase space for active materials.

Lithium polymer, a battery gel material that can be shaped to fit efficiently inside phones or handhelds, has also grown in performance and popularity. One phone maker has completely converted to lithium polymer.

"People want slim phones. They don't want to go back to 10-millimeter cells," Chaudhury said.

Trouble ahead?
Problems, though, are brewing. For one thing, the end appears to be in sight for improvements to lithium ion. "The theoretical maximum will be reached by 2006 for lithium-ion chemistry," Chaudhury said.

To continue to improve performance, device makers will begin to combine batteries with other technologies, such as superconductors (reservoirs for electricity) and fuel cells. Toshiba has shown off a prototype fuel cell that it says can power an MP3 player for 20 hours. It may come out in 2006. Different types of fuel cells could be used to run laptops or televisions.

"That would truly be portable TV," said Fumio Ueno, an executive in the company's Display Devices & Components Control Center.

Companies will still manage to eke improvements out of batteries, Chaudhury added. Another company, Japan's Pionics, is working on technology to increase the density of lithium ion, while Zinc Matrix Power is coming out with an alkaline battery in 2006 that it says could double the run time of notebooks.

Still, customers may never be fully satisfied. "Things (in notebooks) are going in the direction of greater power consumption," which could sap battery performance, said Roger Kay, an analyst at IDC.

Then again, Kay admits that he gets close to eight hours of battery life out of his notebook, thanks to a nine-cell battery in the back and a lithium-polymer battery in the DVD bay.